Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 5 | 'All up in arms'

The S.C. governor, Green Scissors, Friends of the Earth, the Pig Book: Everyone has something to say.

May 17, 2007 

Who's in charge — maybe that explains what's going on between Clyburn and Gov. Mark Sanford, who opposes the bridge, as do some other powerful Republicans and conservative organizations.

In March 2003, Sanford challenged Clyburn and his proposed Connector by asking the U.S. Department of Transportation for a cost-benefit study. Also requesting the analysis were U.S. Reps. Lindsey Graham, Joe Wilson, Jim DeMint and Gresham Barrett, all Republicans.

In May 2003, the proposed Connector made the Green Scissors report, an annual effort by three advocacy groups: Taxpayers for Common Sense, Friends of the Earth and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The Connector was one of 10 road and highway projects singled out for a "huge price tag" and "devastating environmental cost."

In November 2003, NBC visited for a "Fleecing of America" segment. A reporter described Sparkleberry Swamp as "a sacred wetland" and said "accusations of out-and-out racism and pork-barrel politics over a road project have shattered the quiet calm."

In June 2004, the report "Road to Ruin: The 27 Most Wasteful Road Projects in America" was released by Taxpayers for Common Sense and Friends of the Earth. While not in the top 10, the proposed Connector did make the longer list of "billion-dollar white elephants."

In May 2005, Sanford paddled Sparkleberry Swamp with 100 supporters, using his Family Fitness Challenge to make a public point. He invited Clyburn and state highway commissioners, saying, "If we build this bridge, a pristine natural area of our state will be gone forever."

In February 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers entered the picture. DOT filed a request to fill three acres of Rimini wetlands. The Corps has jurisdiction over wetlands dredging or filling or placement of structures over navigable waters.

The Corps ordinarily receives a letter or two about a dock or parking lot during its public-comment period. This time, it was inundated.

From Michael Reino, twice a Republican candidate for Clyburn's seat, the Corps received a 751-signature petition opposing the Connector. Jenny Sanford, wife of the governor, signed.

The Corps continues to receive letters in opposition, 664 so far.

In favor? The Corps has 74 letters and a 1,500-signature petition. Residents of counties around Lake Marion collected signatures in 2001 and 2002; Clyburn's office assisted and provided the petition.

In September 2006, the SELC sued DOT and the Federal Highway Administration in federal court, an effort to stop the Connector and change how the S.C. Department of Transportation assesses such projects.

In November 2006, Sanford won a second term as governor. His campaign Web site listed opposition to the Connector among his first-term accomplishments.

In February, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control denied a water-quality permit because information from DOT was incomplete.

Construction can't start without the permit. But Clyburn and his staff dismiss the denial as "just part of the process."

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In fact, Clyburn is not moved by any of the opposition.

DOT had OK'd the project. Its final environmental-impact statement, issued in February 2003, gave the go-ahead.

There's a federal green light, too. In June 2003, the Federal Highway Administration ruled in favor of the Connector.

When Sanford and four members of the congressional delegation asked Norman Mineta, then transportation secretary, for a cost-benefit analysis, Clyburn wrote, too, saying, "I am sure my Republican colleagues did not intend to single out my district and priorities for disparate treatment. But they have."

Mineta answered: "During review of highway projects under the national Environmental Policy Act, a cost-benefit analysis is neither required nor generally conducted."

Clyburn calls Sanford's behavior "condescending." In his constituent newsletter, called Capitol Column, he reacted to the governor's swamp tour: "From the safety of their kayaks, they won't see the faces of the residents living on the shores of Lake Marion. ... I have visited their schools and their homes. I have attended their family reunions and fellowshipped in their churches. For their sake, I will continue my efforts ..."

As to the Corps' cache of letters, con outweighing pro, Clyburn shrugs off the imbalance: "Everybody gets all up in arms about people who write letters and send petitions. I talk to people who walk up to me in church. They will never write a letter."

Clyburn is convinced that the concept for the bridge is environmentally friendly. He says he asked for "a bridge that will not disturb any wetlands connected to the lake."

He also requested other design factors: A bridge fit not only for vehicles, but for runners and cyclists, "because I want to make this attractive to tourists." And a bridge that connects the Palmetto Trail, a cross-state trail of many connecting passages, to the S.C. National Heritage Corridor, 240 miles of history, culture and nature, "so this is a real connector."

Because Clyburn has been acclaimed as the environmentalists' ally — perhaps the only one in the state's congressional delegation — their stance galls him to the point he questions motives.

"The whole opposition to this project is one big falsehood," he says. "There is absolutely no threat to the environment with this project. None. There's no disturbance. Not one inch will be disturbed."

When it comes to the permit process — the delays, the denial, the lawsuit — Clyburn simply says all this was expected; the process must play itself out. Each "no" slows an already slower-than-usual process and may alter design, but won't end his quest.

The pork-barrel comments come with a serving of irony.

After attention from Green Scissors and "Road to Ruin," the Connector made an appearance in a 2005 issue brief from Citizens Against Government Waste.

Private, nonpartisan and nonprofit, CAGW is known for its "Congressional Pig Book." The annual publication lists "pork-barrel projects in the federal budget" that fit its criteria, which include "not requested by the president" and "serves only a local or special interest."

Over the past few years the "Pig Book" has cited, just to choose a few familiar items connected to Clyburn's largesse: $1 million for the S.C. National Heritage Corridor, $5 million for USC's Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center, $1.5 million for North Main Street development in Columbia, $2 million for ETV.

Turn attention to Lake Marion and the "Pig Book" cites $4 million for the Lake Marion Regional Water Agency. In January, a USC student asked Clyburn about controlling "pork-barrel spending" when Clyburn attended a campus luncheon tagged "Eat In Speak Out."

Clyburn turned ferocious while the student turned red. "Don't fall for that junk; don't fall for that junk," he said, then named the war in Iraq and tax cuts as true budget-busting culprits.

What Clyburn didn't say — but is obvious to anyone familiar with this state — is that South Carolinians hunger for pork, with or without mustard sauce.

It's a state tradition: U.S. Sen. Olin Johnston ("Mr. Civil Service") and his post offices, U.S. Rep. Mendel Rivers ("Rivers Delivers") and his military bases, U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond ("Everything that was honorable to get, we got it") and anything.

But Clyburn believes his focus is different, compared to some of the past's white politicians: He believes he is responsible to the have-nots. He believes he is involved in remediation.

He says politicians of the past "steered infrastructure" away from black and poor and rural areas. "None of these people know why their community didn't get developed. I would be less than human if I didn't do something.

"All of this is remedial stuff.

"If I'm in a position to remediate and don't, I'm not worthy of their vote. I'm not worthy of their respect. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror."

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